by Brett Parker
Steve Carrell and Tina Fey are undoubtedly two of the most gifted comedians working in showbiz today. That their new movie, Date Night, is so painfully unfunny comes as something of a shock. These two pros labor extra hard to jolt hard laughs into a promising concept, yet the hilarity never manifests. I feel the blame should go to director Shawn Levy, whose career thus far has proven that he is content with lame-brain jokes on a ridiculously lowbrow level. Date Night proves that sometimes even the best of comedians can't fully rescue a shaky script.
Carrell and Fey star as Phil and Claire Foster, a seemingly happy married couple who begin to feel bogged down by their daily suburban routine. Their marriage has become an endless cycle of 9-5 work, taking care of their kids, constant exhaustion, and uneventful date nights at a bland steak house. Once the Fosters discover that their married friends are getting a divorce (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig in wasted cameos), they begin to question the strength and spark of their very own marriage. Wanting to spice things up, they decide to have a special date night at a trendy restaurant in New York City.
The Fosters get all spruced up and travel to the Big Apple to check out a high-class venue called Claw. It turns out the restaurant has a monumental waiting list and its damn near impossible for the Fosters to suddenly grab a table. Feeling spontaneous, Phil decides to lie and claim a reservation for a couple called the Triplehorns all for himself. The Fosters claim the Triplehorns' table and that's when the mayhem begins. They are approached by two gun-toting shady characters (Common and Jimmi Simpson) who demand that they hand over a stolen hard drive or be killed. The Fosters try desperately to explain that its all a case of mistaken identity, but the thugs grow more threatening as they think they're dealing with the real Triplehorns. The Fosters make a daring escape with their lives and this sets off a wild night in the city in which the married couple will deal with corrupt cops, security intel, hostile con artists, car chases, a big-time gangster, a private gentleman's club, and the N.Y. District Attorney himself.Date Night is certainly a good idea for a comedy with a plot ripe for comic opportunities, yet the potential is wasted and the film becomes a deadly haven of silence. The jokes are incredibly lame and no one says anything of any intelligible wit. Perhaps any hope for a comic edge was skewered by the film's PG-13 rating. Perhaps if the talent here was allowed to riff without any inhibitions they would've really unearthed some worthwhile laughs. Of course there's nothing wrong with a comedy that the whole family can enjoy, if it respects the intelligence of the family. New York City is more fun in a comedy that plays with its devilish tendencies instead of one that smooths them over to grab a broader audience. Its as if the filmmakers wanted Date Night to be a reworking of After Hours for the Family Channel. Doesn't sound too fun, does it?
Carrell and Fey have certainly earned their now-iconic status as two of the funniest comedians around. They've etched out quite a name for themselves in television, where Carrell's The Office and Fey's 30 Rock have proven to be two of the funniest television shows ever produced. Of course these stars aren't just TV wonders; Carrell was rip-roaring hilarious in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Fey brought a sharp wit to Mean Girls. It's rather jarring that their efforts fail miserably this time out, but I think Levy's own lack of a comic edge most likely put a damper on things. A look over his filmography (Just Married, The Pink Panther) shows that he revels in tame comedies with dim-witted gags. He has the cinematic sensibilities of a clean-cut 13-year-old. He seems to offer up movies for the kiddie matinees. Screwball romps are more fun when the director bears an anarchic spirit themselves. That's why Judd Apatow and Ben Stiller are such fine comic directors.
One positive aspect of Carrell and Fey's casting is their lightning rod for attracting top talents to this project. The film is wall-to-wall with famous faces (Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Olivia Munn, Will i Am, Taraji P. Henson) who most likely took their roles out of respect for Carrell and Fey's brilliant comic work. Yet the screenplay gives none of these actors anything of real wit or intelligence to say and it becomes a sad display of a wasted cast. Despite the film's fatal lack of laughs, a few juicy performances still manage to spark some interest. Franco and Kunis bicker wonderfully as a criminal couple, displaying an energetic and uproarious tension that Carrell and Fey crucially lack. Wahlberg is oddly convincing as a rakish security expert who constantly shows off his flawless abs. The film's funniest performance comes from J.B. Smoove as a frantically terrified Cab Driver who gets caught up in a high-speed chase with the Fosters. His school-girl squealing and howling hysterics generate the only laughs I really had in this film. Smoove frequents television a lot ('Til Death, Castle, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Everybody Hates Chris) but now its time to put him in more movies!
Carrell and Fey have done wonderful work in the past and they will continue to do great comedy in the future and one day we will all forget about Date Night. It's a disappointing reminder that they are not invincible. So if you want to check out a laugh-a-minute comedy of biting hilarity with a cast that hits on all cylinders, check out Hot Tub Time Machine. I saw it for a second time with a group of friends and I laughed even harder than I did the first time! It has everything that Date Night wanted to have, but couldn't quite grasp.